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The city of Detroit is trying everything it can to revive its school system, and stop an exodus of students. They're replacing old buildings, hiring new principals, and getting parents engaged.
That means more than just building a PTA, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports in the first of two stories on the Detroit schools.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The effort to involve parents in Detroit education focuses on lots of little things, like the homework corner in Myesha Williams' house on Doris Street.
MYESHA WILLIAMS: The homework corner is awesome.
ABRAMSON: With eight children, five still in school, Myesha Williams' house is packed tight. But unlike many families in this city, she set aside a special corner for homework.
WILLIAMS: They gave us the bookcase. They did the curtains. They painted the picture frames.
ABRAMSON: The Detroit Parent Network, a local nonprofit working with the school system, has outfitted the space to look like a classroom - with a neat bookshelf and a whiteboard. The message to her kids: Learning deserves an exalted place in the home.
WILLIAMS: It's just a sense of peace. You just come in and you sit down, and you do your homework. And you just - you know, it's cool.
ABRAMSON: The idea is, this home will serve as a model that neighbors will emulate. Along with homework skills, DPS is also trying to instill better parenting strategies through workshops across the city.
MARIE ILES: (Foreign language spoken)
ABRAMSON: This session is focused on the Hispanic population of the city's west side. Facilitator Marie Iles works with a dozen women in one of the city's many new parent resource centers. They sit and drink coffee in a brightly lit room at Phoenix Elementary. They're talking about the role that parents play in raising achievement.
ILES: Now, positive feedback and encouragement to children - what do you think would be some examples of that?
ABRAMSON: The workshop emphasizes ways to encourage reluctant students. Many of these mothers admit it's hard not to yell when your kids act out, or won't do their homework. This resource center, they say, gives ideas on how to instill the value of success. But some behaviors are hard to change.
TINA PEREZ: You can still see the kids fighting. It's what they learn at home.
ABRAMSON: Tina Perez is the kind of parent DPS wants to hold onto. She's committed to her school, and to helping other parents. But she might not be able to wait for the schools to improve. Perez says her daughter complains she's already bored with the eighth-grade Detroit curriculum.
PEREZ: She goes, Mom, I'm not learning nothing. I don't open my book. I already know what it's about. To me, that's cheating.
ABRAMSON: Her daughter has applied to a competitive DPS high school. Tina Perez fears if her daughter does not get in, they may have to leave the public school system altogether.
For Detroit parents, investing in the school system requires a lot of time. It also takes an element of faith.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good afternoon, everybody that's here. I want to give kudos to Ms. Lindsay, the president or our LSCO...
ABRAMSON: This Local School Community Organization has played a role in saving Mumford High School, a troubled but historic school in a middle-class neighborhood. Thanks, in part, to strong parental support, Mumford has escaped rounds of closures. In fact, it's getting a brand-new building.
Karen Lindsay, the organization's chair, says she will keep working to improve Mumford, even after her daughter graduates this summer.
KAREN LINDSAY: Now, I'm going to show you something.
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LINDSAY: I want everybody to receive what my daughter gets. That's her transcript. She gets straight A's. She's had straight A's since she's been in Mumford. She's - plays basketball, ran track. So if my child can do it, everybody - child can do it.
ABRAMSON: The hope is that attitude will be infectious.
Parent involvement will only help if Detroit can address another problem: a history of dismal attendance rates. A look at what it takes to get kids to school in tomorrow's story.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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